Even In This: The Sacred Power of Radical Trust by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I remember back when I worked in biology, some of the labs used animal models, like zebrafish or fruit flies, for their research. Some of my family members even worked with mice, helping to develop insulin treatments for diabetes that would mean fewer needles for children; or treatments for burn victims that directly helped the children at the Shriner’s hospital across the street. Their work really inspired me. Partly because of the ways it was helping so many people, of course. But also because of the way they talked about the mice.

I’m not here to defend or condemn experimental mouse models. What I want to talk about today is sacrifice. Because in these labs, the taking of an animal’s life is never described as killing. Every single time an animal dies, it is called a sacrifice. Every time.

It is a sacrifice. Not just of the animal’s life, although that is huge. It’s also a sacrifice of the researcher’s willingness to do tough things in their commitment to try to bring healing to others. Day after day, animal after animal, people make, and perform, that double sacrifice. How hard it must be on them. What a weight of responsibility they bear. Of course sometimes experiments are wasteful or unnecessary; of course science gets it wrong sometimes. Maybe a lot of the time. Either way, the act is always named: sacrifice.

(Photo credit: Pixabay)

We don’t use the word often. It literally means ‘to make holy or sacred.’ Some sacrifices are joyful: a sacrifice of praise, when we set aside time to sing and pray, when we ‘Take Time to be Holy.’ Let us continually offer to the Holy a sacrifice of praise, writes the author of Hebrews, the fruit of lips that openly profess the Holy name. Even our laments are a sacrifice of praise, our cries the ultimate expression of deep trust in the eternal, mighty arms of Love. We set apart moments for gratitude, and moments for lament; because sometimes, as with those mice, it’s a blood sacrifice.

Some sacrifices are chosen freely. But some are chosen reluctantly; and as all women know, still others are forced, unwillingly. Sometimes, we can see that a sacrifice contributes to a greater good. And sometimes, things are sacrificed out of ignorance, or fear, or for convenience, or greed. The animals we eat – ‘slaughtered,’ ‘caught,’ ‘harvested’ – but aren’t they all sacrificed, too? Not to mention the plants and other creatures involved, and the sacrifices – sometimes mortal – of the humans who get that food to our tables. Of course, the most exploited farm workers are the women. Slavery, trafficking, abuse. Where is the sacredness in that?

See, sacrifice happens on either an altar of idolatry or an altar of Holiness. And that is the curious thing about sacrifice: we can’t always easily tell. The lives of the Hebrews were being sacrificed on an altar of empire greed. Thus the blood sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb. Imagine, struggling just to survive, what a courageous sacrifice it would be to kill a lamb before it was full grown and could offer milk and wool? This radical act of trust, that something new would be born, even in the midst of trauma and horror, led the Angel of Death to ‘Pass Over’ their homes, so they could escape to freedom.

The greed of another empire sacrificed Jesus’ life as well. Another blood sacrifice, so Jewish Jesus-followers also called him a Paschal Lamb. These communities believed, with their whole beings, that there is something stronger than greed, empire, and death. Something so powerful that even a blood sacrifice, even a gruesome one, even the execution of a brown skinned, gentle man, where he publicly suffocates to death while being mocked and scorned, even that kind of sacrifice can birth something pure and healed and new, through radical acts of trust.

That is the power of Holiness – to take things that feel hard, scary, even irredeemable, and birth something new. All we can do is keep trying, each day, to trust; to release our fear and dedicate ourselves to the covenantal life. To honor the Holy with our wealth, with the firstfruits of all our labors [Prov 3:9]. What if we all did that – let the very first thing we do with anything we earn or grow or raise be dedicated to something holy, something that brings justpeace? Maybe at first it would feel scary, or like a burden. But – then – what if that sacrifice transformed us, and set us free?

What sacrificial leap of faith is calling to you? Because we need them all, more than ever. I leave you today with a Eucharist, or ‘thanksgiving,’ in which the black oil blood of the sacred Earth flows out in a sacrificial wound on an altar of fear, convenience, ignorance, and greed. As our planet loses oxygen and suffocates under rising carbon dioxide, as those who speak out for the suffering continue to be mocked and scorned, let us remember this Earthly, bleeding Paschal Lamb each time we break bread and share cup: one body, one world. A Holy Communion – to commune, with one another and all Creation – that invites us to trust as the ancients: Holiness is birthing healing, redemption, liberation – even in this.

Each night, Earth gives itself up for us
it takes bread, in praise to you the Source of all
breaks the bread, and shares it, saying,
‘Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.’

Likewise, Earth takes a cup, in praise to you the Source of all
and offers it, saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you;
this is my blood of the New Covenant
poured out for you and for all for the healing of all wounds.
Do this as often as you drink, in remembrance of me.’

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts
in the Sacred Incarnate Creation
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice
in union with Earth’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Earth has died. Earth is risen. Earth will rise again.

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee, PhD is an ecological ethicist and the founder of Climate Resilience Chaplaincy. She studies intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Categories: Feminism and Religion, General, religion


15 replies

  1. I know this isn’t your point but it’s very important to acknowledge our ongoing complicity in slaughter without acknowledging the sacrifice made. ” The animals we eat – ‘slaughtered,’ ‘caught,’ ‘harvested’ – but aren’t they all sacrificed, too?” YES.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Absolutely, Sara. That is definitely part of my point. Saying grace at meals is one way we can acknowledge, honor, and be mindful of the sacrifices made for us to live. As Alfred North Whitehead says, all life is robbery. <3

      Liked by 2 people

  2. The idea that mice, and beagles and chimpanzees are “sacrificible” for human purposes is the antithesis of communion with nature. The entire model is flawed. We can commune with the natural world of which we are an inextricable part and receive information from more ancestral modalities. Our ancestors taught us that we can feed in holy ways. However, experimenting on animals means we are cutting ourselves off from the oneness of our shared being on this planet. This is especially so because it is no longer necessary with the technology available and because it serves only to mitigate risk ($$$) to pharma and insurance corps. Calling systemic killing of mouse models sacrifice in the lab is a nice bow on a turd, but I guess it is a baby step in facing that we are all complicit in the unnecessary torture and unholy slaughter of millions of life forms because it serves our current degraded human culture.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Elisabeth. I wish everyone felt so strongly about how animals are treated in general – for food, or whose habitats are destroyed for human housing and business, or who are overfished, or how pets are treated/mistreated. Certainly our relationship with animals involves much idolatry, greed, convenience, and ignorance. Just calling something a ‘sacrifice’ doesn’t automatically make it ‘the right choice for the greater good’ in any way. As you allude, it can become an excuse to think we can do whatever we want in the name of ‘medicine’ or ‘progress.’

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your compassionate response and thank you for your thoughtful work. I think that mostly we as Westerners are deeply indoctrinated into thinking any act is moral if it prolongs our life and avoids our death. I think a deeper understanding of spirituality requires we move past the attachment to this life, and our current temporary sacred form, which I love passionately and to which I am very attached! We need to understand that death is part of the sacred life-cycle and that prolonging it by using other lifeforms as commodities does not serve our souls that are eternal. There are worse things than dying, I believe because our actions as souls matter in the life of our consciousness. Thank you for the discussion. Namaste.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you, Elisabeth. Not only that, the idea of medical ‘advancements’ is so deeply assumed that not only is it assumed to be ethical to further them, regardless of the cost, but it is considered unethical NOT to. While some deaths are traumatic, some are beautiful, even joyful. Death itself is not the source of the trauma, or even the fear or sadness people associate with it. Yet it often becomes the target to avoid at all costs. As you say, deep understandings of the sacredness of life include death and life in a holy cycle. To bring in my post more, all living requires some kind of sacrifice – we eat plants, some of us eat animals, we take up space that could be otherwise used, and on and on. If we can trust – wholly trust – that life’s meaning and purpose are much bigger than our individual egos, desires, or selves, we can rest in that grace and be at peace with the cycles of life and death, at peace with denying ourselves rather than trying to hoard every treat, every cure, every meat based feast. This kind of intentional, sacrificial living allows us to experience abundance no matter what we are eating and no matter our health. Thank you for the discussion as well, and for engaging so deeply with this topic that matters so much to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You wrote a great piece on this topic, Tallessyn, about letting go of our attachment to life itself. Elisabeth might like that post if you link it here.


  4. Thank you for this nuanced and compassionate discussion of a topic that is difficult but so important as we consider our relationships to ourselves, other humans, and all living beings. Because the concept of “sacrifice” is so deeply ingrained in our culture it is essential that we examine it in all its aspects. Before reading your post, I hadn’t thought about how that word means to make sacred or holy or the idea of thinking of it as dedication. I’ve recently been reminiscing about times in the past when I have made what might be considered sacrifices of my own well being, and your post sheds new light on them in a positive way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Carolyn. It is indeed a complex topic, and hard to cover deeply in one post, but still, as you say, important and intriguing in its potential for our lives. It is true that women sacrifice so much – are expected to. I am so glad that you feel the power of holiness in your life!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow this is complex with so much to consider. I do love the concept of the “sacrifice of praise.” One of the passages has a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

    I am also thinking of the flip side and Pelosi’s ugly statement about George Floyd as sacrifice. Clearly a sacrifice of idolatry to the powers of white supremacy and the greed necessary to keep it in place. Also not a sacrifice by his choosing which makes it torture.

    Here’s to making sacred in the name of holiness, blessedness and love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Janet, for everything you said. I purposefully drew the parallel between Jesus’ death and George Floyd in the post, for all the reasons you mention. People who are crucified die from suffocation. I’m grateful to be on the journey with you, as we support each other in the radical trust, as you say, for ‘making sacred in the name of holiness, blessedness, and love.’ <3

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Very interesting! Wasn’t there a sf movie some years ago in which the mice were big and people were tiny and they experimented on us? I have a very vague memory……unless I’m just making this up because I found your post inspiring. Bright blessings!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you found the post interesting, Barbara. That movie sounds fascinating! I have not heard of it, but it sounds like a great way to explore the ethics of lab research on otherkind. I used only single cell models, such as bacteria, yeast, and (human) tissue culture cells; even with cell models, the ethics are still complex, particularly with HeLa cells, which were developed without consent from the original person, an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks. A movie was made about it, ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,’ starring Oprah Winfrey. Blessings to you, friend! <3

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I worked in a lab for a year in which we sacrificed a lot of rats. I did a lot of it myself until I was promoted to manager and supervised the techs doing that job. I really, really hated it. It was made worse because I did not believe in the vision of the company, or in the success of their attempt to design their product. I was very happy to leave that job, and I never forgot those rats. They were so conditioned to spending their entire lives in small cages that if they ever escaped onto the floor, they would just sit there looking scared until we picked them up. It was a very depressing job, but it got me out of the deep hole of debt I was in, and I guess that’s the way these sicknesses all reinforce each other.
    I really appreciate you raising the ethical problems with our approach to animals and Earth, and the implications for our spiritual and communal health. I find these topics overwhelming, and I appreciate that you have the courage and strength to address them so directly. It’s a big help.


    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for all the sacrifices you have made. I know it’s a complex situation, but I will always be grateful that your job enabled you to do in your life, and as always, you are my hero.


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